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Engineering Geology 72 (2004) 253 – 260


Groundwater and geotechnical aspects of deep

excavations in Hong Kong
R.A. Forth *
School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Drummond Building, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU, UK

Received 6 March 2002; accepted 18 September 2003


Consideration of groundwater is a key element in almost every construction project. The design of deep excavations for
basements or underground railway station concourses below the water table require that the water pressures are taken into
account. Whilst these can be considered to be hydrostatic in soil, the decreasing permeability of rock with depth and the fact that
groundwater flow is invariably along discrete fractures means that the water pressure is unlikely to be hydrostatic at depth.
Groundwater control for deep excavations can be achieved by a number of methods such as grouting, pumping or structural
walls or a combination of these. For tunnelling projects grouting is extensively used, but the development of sophisticated
tunnelling machines has led in many cases to the demise of compressed air as a means of groundwater control.
D 2003 Published by Elsevier B.V.

Keywords: Permeability; Rock; Groundwater; Dewatering; Settlement

1. Introduction (e.g. completely weathered granite) which is obtained

by Mazier or Triefus sampling tubes with tungsten
The measurement of groundwater pressure in soil carbide bits is considered to be soil for the purposes of
and rock is carried out by installing piezometers and this paper. A typical Hong Kong ground profile
measuring the water pressure whether continuously consists of made ground overlying alluvial/colluvium
or, more commonly, at intervals. Hydraulic piezom- which in turn overlies weathered rock before fresh
eters are usually employed in soil but in rock, where rock is encountered.
flow is often along discrete discontinuities, the For a relatively homogeneous rock type, the dis-
groundwater pressure is more accurately measured continuities tend to become less frequent and tighter
using pneumatic piezometers. with depth very often leading to extremely low per-
In Hong Kong, the distinction between ‘‘soil’’ and meabilities. It is in fact possible that even at relatively
‘‘rock’’ in engineering terms is that rock is cored by shallow depths the water pressure reduces to zero. In
rotary drilling using diamond bits and excavated by many civil engineering projects, water in the rock
percussive methods or blasting. Thus weathered rock need not be a problem in comparison with water in the
overlying soil, unless artesian conditions are encoun-
tered, and measurements are not often undertaken.
* Fax: +44-191-222-6613. Hoek and Bray (1981) addressed the problem
E-mail address: r.a.forth@ncl.ac.uk (R.A. Forth). proposing that hydrostatic pressure would buildup to

0013-7952/$ - see front matter D 2003 Published by Elsevier B.V.

254 R.A. Forth / Engineering Geology 72 (2004) 253–260

depth and showed that the number of fractures per

meter reduced from about five at the rockhead to
about two at 30 –35 m depth (Fig. 2). From this, they
considered that the Hoek and Bray approach was
conservative and suggested an alternative pressure
distribution (Fig. 3).
However, in order to check fracture flow pneu-
matic piezometers were installed at specific loca-
tions in the rock, where discontinuities were
present. The head of water measured at these loca-
tions was recorded and found to be in the range
0.2 –0.4 of hydrostatic (Morton et al., 1984), thus
confirming Matson et al.’s (1986) assumptions. In
fact, the water pressure reduced almost to zero at
about 30 m below ground level. The use of mea-
sured water pressures reduced the required rock
anchor capacity up to 30%, with considerable cost
Fig. 1. Possible groundwater pressure models for excavated rock savings.
face. The assumption that permeability decreases at
depth is also confirmed by studies in Sweden (Ahl-
the mid-point of the excavation followed by a decline
to zero at the base of the excavation (Fig. 1). Matson
et al. (1986), working at the North Point, Hong Kong,
Metro concourse, recorded fracture frequency with

Fig. 2. Fracture frequency versus depth. Fig. 3. Comparison of possible water pressure versus hydrostatic.
R.A. Forth / Engineering Geology 72 (2004) 253–260 255

For the deep excavations, the diaphragm walls

were very effective when founded in bedrock.
However, where bedrock was deeper than the base
of the excavation grout was injected beneath the
walls. In the context of the ISL project, the grout
was only required to be fully effective for about a
year or two as there were no significant delays in
the programme of construction. However, research
is needed into the performance of the grout in the
longer term where, for example, building pro-
grammes are delayed for technical or, more likely,
financial reasons.
For tunnelling, groundwater control was achieved
by grouting and compressed air. The use of com-
pressed air meant that all site investigation boreholes
and piezometers along the route had to be backfilled
and thoroughly sealed which, of course, prevented the
collection of groundwater level data during the tun-
nelling phase.
Ground treatment designs were based on the soil
conditions for each particular site and were generally
specified as a grout percentage of the soil volume,
Fig. 4. Hydraulic conductivity plotted against depth for rock mass and an injection pressure. In most cases, grouting for
and fracture zones within crystalline rock in southeast Sweden. groundwater control was two stage: cement– benton-
Polynomial regression lines have been fitted to the data (redrawn ite followed by chemical, with grout volumes spec-
from Ahlbom et al., 1991). ified for each type. Typical volumes for cement –
bentonite grout were 5% to 30%, depending on soil
bom et al., 1991) where permeability of the order of type (fill through to completely weathered granite
10 10 m/s were measured in crystalline rock (Fig. 4), as, for example, illustrated in Fig. 5) and for chem-
similar to the values obtained in the studies of the ical grouts 20% to 40%. Jet Grout piling or Jet
proposed nuclear waste repository site at Sellafield Special Grouting was also employed and may use
(Chaplow, 1996). greater than 50% grout by volume. The chemical
This paper draws on the authors’ experience of grouts most commonly used were sodium silicates
dewatering projects in Hong Kong, notably on the with hardener volumes depending on setting times
construction of the Island Line of the Mass Transit required.
Railway constructed between 1982 and 1986. Grouting pressures were dependent on depth of
grouting and desired permeation rates, and were
usually in excess of overburden or water pressure.
2. Groundwater control Injection methods used varied from site to site and
include, in soil, Tube-a-Manchette, Lag and Jet Spe-
For relatively near surface excavations for typical cial grouting (a replacement method). Rock grouting
civil engineering projects in urban areas, groundwater was usually done using a staged method.
control can be achieved by a number of methods such Generally, the soil grouting was effective both as
as grouting, pumping or structural walls, or a combi- groundwater control and ground consolidation. The
nation of these. Typical ground treatment methods chemical grouts appear to be able to permeate soils
used in the construction of the Island Line (ISL) of the with up to 10% to 20% passing the 75 Am size,
Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway (MTR) are illus- although this was by no means a general rule, as
trated in Fig. 5. the cement – bentonite grouts can penetrate the
256 R.A. Forth / Engineering Geology 72 (2004) 253–260

Fig. 5. Ground treatment methods.

coarser sands and gravel sizes. In most cases, the excavation or tunnelling. Fig. 6 shows the grout-
soils encountered were able to be effectively penetration ranges in the Hong Kong soils as
grouted using these two stage mixes. The major determined from experience gained by the MTRC
problems, which were encountered, tended to be in on the ISL.
the loose alluvial sands (Cater et al., 1984). These
coarser sands provided resistance to grouting. It is
not known whether this was due to groundwater 3. Case histories
flows or excessive grout travel or a chemical effect.
Consequently, they often provided an opening in A number of buildings were carefully monitored
the grout curtain allowing water ingress during before, during and after construction of tunnels and/or
R.A. Forth / Engineering Geology 72 (2004) 253–260 257

Fig. 6. Grout penetration ranges.

deep excavations. As previously stated the tunnelling 4. Building descriptions

operations carried out under compressed air precluded
the collection of hydrogeological data during this Building A is a 15-storey reinforced concrete
important phase. For the station concourses, the building constructed in 1956. It measures 29 m by
dewatering took place simultaneously with the exca- 49 m in plan, is 54 m high (15 storeys), and has a
vation of spoil from within diaphragm walls. Hence, it small basement and lift-pit along the centre of the
is not possible to separate ground movements caused western side (see Forth and Thorley, 1994).
by excavation and those caused by the dewatering The foundations are 432 mm diameter vibro cast
process. Some typical time-settlement plots are in- in situ reinforced concrete piles. The piles are in
cluded for three buildings (Buildings A, B and C as groups of 3– 10 with isolated pile caps of 1.3 –1.8
described below) adjacent to construction activities in m thickness. Pile spacings are at two pile diame-
Central Hong Kong (Fig. 7). From this plot, it can be ters within the group and groups are generally
seen that the total amount of settlement due to spaced 4– 7 m apart. The founding level of the
excavation (including dewatering) is significant but piles is not recorded but is thought to be at the top
not substantial in comparison with the settlement due of the completely weathered granite strata. The
to preliminary works and diaphragm walling. piles therefore would be founded at 15 – 17 m
258 R.A. Forth / Engineering Geology 72 (2004) 253–260

Fig. 7. Buildings A, B and C: time-settlement plots.

below ground level. The design capacity of the structure, 16 storeys (53 m) in height, and is L-
piles is 61 t. shaped to fit the site geometry. In plan, the building
Building B was constructed in the mid-to-late is 30.5 m long and from 5 to 9 m wide (see Forth
1970s (Building Plan approval was given in 1973). and Thorley, 1993).
The building is a reinforced concrete framed structure, This building, unlike the others considered, has
31 storeys (110 m) high and measures 74 by 45 m in foundations consisting of 305  305 high yield steel
plan. It has one basement below ground level (see H-piles, varying in length from 31 to 33 m. Pile
Forth and Thorley, 1996). founding levels range from 27 to 29 mPD,
The foundations consist of 2 m diameter bored which is some 3 to 8 m below the upper surface
reinforced concrete piles varying in length from 41 to of the completely weathered granite strata. The
64 m. The central piles support a 3.2- to 4.1-m-thick piles support four separate pile caps from 1.5 to
raft with the perimeter piles, in groups of 1 to 4, 1.9 m thick. A test pile on the site, loaded with
supporting 2.4- to 4.6-m-thick caps. Founding levels twice the design load of 150 t is reported to have
of the piles vary from 48 mPD on the south side to settled 21 mm. This pile was founded in CWG at
60 mPD on the north side. All piles are founded on 28.7 mPD.
what was logged as ‘‘completely to moderately weath-
ered granite’’. A trial pile on the site was founded at
an SPT N value reported to be 400. 5. Construction activities
Building C was also constructed in the mid-
1970s, the Building Plan approval being given in In the vicinity of the building, the construction
1972. The building is a reinforced concrete framed activities associated with the MTR Island Line con-
R.A. Forth / Engineering Geology 72 (2004) 253–260 259

sisted of diaphragm walling, deep excavations and Based on a theoretical dewatering settlement calcu-
soft-ground tunnelling. lation a value of over 20 mm settlement is sug-
Excavation of the boxes within the 1.2-m-thick gested due to drawdown. This would indicate 5 –10
diaphragm walls was done in all instances by top mm settlement due to wall deflection, which repre-
down methods using temporary strutting in addition to sents 0.07 – 0.15 deflection/settlement ratio. This
progressive installation of the permanent floor slabs. compares with 0.17– 0.25 reported by Morton et
Dewatering for these excavations was by deep wells al. (1980, 1981).
within the box, the soil being dewatered to 1 –2 m An interesting groundwater effect on this and
below excavation levels. other buildings was that of settlement rebound after
Readings from an inclinometer in one of the construction was completed and the compressed
diaphragm walls adjacent to Building A showed air employed during adjacent tunnelling was swit-
considerable horizontal movement of the base of ched off. This is observed in particular in the time-
the wall towards the excavation. The bottom of the settlement record for Buildings A and C (Fig.
inclinometer in this case was founded below the 7) and was of the order of 10% of the total set-
base of the diaphragm wall in completely weathered tlement. Minor architectural damage occurred to
granite. An inward movement of up to 80 mm was Building A.
measured (Fig. 8) at the base of the inclinometer. Building B settled a total of 20 mm during
excavation and dewatering and, as was the case
for A above, the building tilted towards the exca-
vation by a maximum of 1:4900. This settlement is
surprising given that the building is founded some
10 to 18 m below the diaphragm walls and 20 to 30
m below excavation level. It is considered the most
likely reason for the 20 mm of settlement is
dewatering effects causing down drag on the piles
during consolidation of the CWG and superficial
deposits, in conjunction with probably high pile
loads. As extensive piezometric data is not available
around the building, a theoretical estimate cannot be
undertaken. It is unlikely, however, to be conclusive
as the pre-construction estimates based on flow-net
analysis showed negligible movement. It is also
possible that inward movement of the diaphragm
walls may have had a similar down drag effect on
the foundations resulting in the 10 to 20 mm of
settlement. In either case, it should be noted that
this degree of movement had no effect on a
building of that size, rigidity and condition. No
damage occurred to this building.
Building C settled some 22 to 45 mm during
excavation although the direction of tilt was away
from the adjacent site. The reasons for this apparently
unusual behaviour are:

(a) the effect of piling on a nearby site;

(b) ground treatment drilling near the northwest corner
Fig. 8. Building A: adjacent diaphragm walling inclinometer which is not able to be completely separated from
readings. the excavation settlement; and
260 R.A. Forth / Engineering Geology 72 (2004) 253–260

(c) the complexity and rigidity of the diaphragm walls Cater, R.W., Shirlaw, J.N., Sullivan, C., Chan, W.T., 1984. Tunnels
adjacent to the building which may have the effect constructed for the Hong Kong mass transit railway. Hong Kong
Eng. 12 (10), 37 – 49.
of minimising settlement due to wall deflection in Chaplow, R., 1996. The geology and hydrogeology of the Sellafield
that area. area: an overview. Q. J. Eng. Geol. 29, S1 – S12.
Forth, R.A., Thorley, C.B.B., 1993. Tunnelling in weathered gran-
If the above factors are taken into consideration, it ite in Hong Kong. Proceedings of International Symposium on
Geotechnical Engineering of Hard Soils and Soft Rocks, Athens.
would seem that the building settled evenly by some
Balkema, Rotterdam, pp. 1433 – 1438.
20 to 40 mm due to the excavation. Based on reported Forth, R.A., Thorley, C.B.B., 1994. Ground movements due to
maximum drawdown in the area, the likely dewater- dewatering for the construction of deep excavations and tunnels
ing settlement is theoretically of the order of 25 mm in Hong Kong. Proceedings of International Conference on
compared to the original estimate of 7 to 10 mm. This Groundwater Problems in Urban Areas, London. Thomas Tel-
would suggest that the settlement due to wall deflec- ford. Balkema, Rotterdam, pp. 401 – 414.
Forth, R.A., Thorley, C.B.B., 1996. Hong Kong Island Line—pre-
tion would be 0 mm in the northeast corner and up to dictions and performance. Proceedings of International Confer-
10 to 20 mm elsewhere. Inclinometer data is not ence on Geotechnical Aspects of Underground Construction in
available to determine the percentage of lateral move- Soft Ground, London. Balkema, Rotterdam, pp. 677 – 682.
ment this represents, although it agrees with the Hoek, E., Bray, J.W., 1981. Rock Slope Engineering, 3rd ed. IMM,
original estimate of 12 mm based on the structural London, p. 358.
Matson, C.R., Choy, H.H., Gibson, A.M., 1986. Rock support pre-
design. No damage occurred to this building. diction in the deep basement of Causeway Bay East Concourse
for the Mass Transit Railway, Hong Kong. Proceedings of Con-
ference on Rock Engineering and Excavation on an Urban En-
6. Summary vironment. IMM, Hong Kong, pp. 285 – 297.
Morton, K., Cater, R.W., Linney, L., 1980. Observed settlements of
buildings adjacent to stations constructed for the Modified Ini-
Control of groundwater in urban environments is a tial System of the Mass Transit Railway, Hong Kong. Proceed-
key element in successful construction. For deep ings of the Sixth Southeast Asian Conference on Soil Engi-
excavations in rock, a realistic estimate of permeabil- neering, Taipei, vol. 1, pp. 415 – 429.
ity has to be made to avoid over-design. In weathered Morton, K., Leonard, M.S.M., Cater, R.W., 1981. Building set-
rock or soft ground conditions, sound construction tlements and ground movements associated with construction
of two stations of the Modified Initial System of the Mass
techniques and careful monitoring of ground and Transit Railway, Hong Kong. Proceedings of the Second
building movement gives confidence to designers in International Conference on Ground Movements and Struc-
estimating the effects of groundwater drawdown nec- tures, Cardiff, pp. 708 – 802. In: Geddes, J.D. (Ed.), Ground
essary to construct large excavations. movements and structures, 1981. Pentech Press, London,
pp. 946 – 947. Discussion.
Morton, K., Sayer, P.R., Lam, K.M., Wu, S.H., 1984. Temporary
support for a deep excavation at North Point, Hong Kong. In:
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